With kickoff less than a week away, Ohio State is preparing for its 125th season of football in Columbus.
The Buckeyes are looking to replace four starting offensive linemen, their leading rusher and leading receiver — not to mention injured senior and Heisman hopeful quarterback Braxton Miller, who accounted for 44 percent of the Buckeyes total offense last year.
The Big Ten’s leading offense from last season will need many young players, as well as returnees, to step up. Here are five impact players to watch on the Buckeyes’ offense this year:
1. Redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett
Barrett might not be the biggest playmaker in this group, but he’s definitely the most important. Really, Barrett has become arguably the most important name in Columbus.
As just a redshirt-freshman, he must take the reins of the record-setting Buckeye offense in order to keep the national title hopes of the Buckeye team alive.
As if that kind of pressure wasn’t enough, Barrett has yet to take a snap in an actual game since his senior year of high school when he tore his ACL.
Barrett, like former Buckeye backup Kenny Guiton who stole the hearts of the Buckeye faithful last season, is a Texas native.
The talent around him is there, but will he be able to distribute the football around and help lead the Buckeyes to a championship season?
Only time will tell, and the time is quickly approaching as the Buckeyes are set to play Navy Saturday at noon at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
2. Sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliot
Between losing Miller and former Buckeye and current San Francisco 49er Carlos Hyde, OSU will lose 2,589 rushing yards, and it needs someone to pick up the load.
Enter Elliot, who has been tabbed as the favorite to take Hyde’s place in the OSU backfield.
Elliot is the returning leading rusher to the Buckeye offense, besides Miller, as he carried the ball 30 times for 262 yards and two touchdowns in 2013.
Elliot is not the only back in the running to replace Hyde, as redshirt-sophomore Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt-senior Rod Smith have also earned praise from coach Urban Meyer during fall camp.
If Elliot can overcome minor wrist surgery and take up the carries left by Hyde and Miller, the OSU offense should remain consistent.
3. Junior offensive lineman Taylor Decker
Anytime a team loses its best player, it hurts. But other than losing Miller in the OSU offense, the offensive line poses the next biggest question.
Decker, the only returning starter from last year’s offensive line, will now be the anchor and leader in the offensive huddle.
The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Decker started all 14 games for the Buckeyes last season and played more snaps from scrimmage than any other offensive player for OSU in 2013.
He’s not the only offensive lineman with significant game experience, however, as redshirt-sophomore Pat Elflein played in place of Marcus Hall last season following Hall’s ejection against Michigan and subsequent suspension against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
With Miller out and a young offensive line, Decker will need to remain healthy and become a leader for the 2014 Buckeye offense.
4. Sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson
With last year’s leading receiver Corey “Philly” Brown gone to the NFL, Wilson will probably be touching the ball a lot in 2014.
Wilson, who will likely be seen in the Percy Harvin role in coach Urban Meyer’s offense, showed glimpses of his electric play last season as he totaled 460 offensive yards to go along with three scores as a true freshman.
Not only is Wilson a playmaker on offense, the 5-foot-10, 188-pounder led the team with 523 kickoff return yards in 2013, making him the returning leader in all-purpose yards (983) with Carlos Hyde and Brown off to the NFL and Miller out with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
Wilson, who changed his number from No. 1 to No. 2 this offseason, could double his touches this season with Hyde, Brown and Miller gone, and could be OSU’s best skill player on offense.
5. Senior wide receiver Devin Smith
Best known for his game-winning catch against Wisconsin in 2011, Smith has always been a big-play threat for OSU.
The senior speedster has a knack for making those noteworthy moves as he scored on plays of 47, 90 and 53 yards last season as a junior. The 90-yard strike from former OSU quarterback Kenny Guiton against the California Golden Bears is the longest play from scrimmage in school history.
But the problem that Smith in his career at OSU has been consistency.
He recorded 38 catches in OSU’s first nine games last season, including six touchdowns. In the Buckeyes’ last five games? Six catches and two scores.
If the Buckeye offense is to be productive, it will need consistency, especially with Miller out.
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